just asking questions

James Lovelock: ‘Any Further Interference Is Likely to Be Disastrous’

James Lovelock. Illustration: Stevie Remsberg/Intelligencer. Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, swept through thousands of cities worldwide — more than 4 million protesters around the world, marching out of anger that so little has been done. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer is publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

James Lovelock turned 100 this year and celebrated by publishing a new book — on artificial intelligence. But he is known as much more of an old-fashioned scientist and compares himself to Darwin and Faraday in that he also likes to work alone, outside of institutions. Nevertheless, though you may not know his name, he is among the most influential scientists of the 20th century, having developed — and then, over the course of decades of writing, refined and refashioned — what is called the “Gaia theory,” or the principle that Earth’s ecosystem is a single, living, self-regulating entity. In early September, just a few months after his birthday, I met Lovelock one morning at his home on Chesil Beach in southern England, where we talked about nuclear power, his hope that AI might save the planet from catastrophic warming, and just how to integrate the disruptions and disturbances of climate change into a Gaia worldview.

At 100 years old, you’ve been alive for something like 90 percent or more of all the carbon emissions that have ever been produced from the burning of fossil fuels.
Exactly. Well, I hope you don’t blame me for that.

But the world really has changed an enormous amount in your lifetime.
Yes. I grew up from 6 till about 14 years old in an area of London which was probably more polluted than anywhere in the world. Particularly vile air. It was so thick that not only could you not see a hand in front of your face, but people were dying on railroad platforms because they couldn’t see where the platform ended. That’s coal for you.

On climate, your views have changed over time, I know. You were for a period more alarmed, and then you grew a little bit less alarmed. How do you see the big picture at the moment? Where do you think we are, and where do you think we’re heading?
The big picture is that everything is continuing more or less as predicted by climate scientists. But the exact course, of course, depends on all sorts of things.

But taking seriously the main proposition of Gaia theory, if the whole Earth system is a kind of living, self-regulating entity of which human activity is also a natural part and one we shouldn’t be trying to exclude, what is concerning about climate change? Why shouldn’t we just accept that as being part of the same system?
Up to a point, we have to, and we do, wrongly. I mean, if you’re an ordinary man with a family, you’ve got to have an income. You’ve got to work for somebody on something and that determines what you do, rather than any environmental concern.

But thinking more globally, people like you and me, who think about these things in somewhat bigger terms — how concerned should we be?
Well, at first you get into a panic. At least I did. And then eventually you realize that there’s not a lot you can do about it. I mean, did you ever read that book by Martin Rees, Our Final Hour? Well, that was written quite a while back and I think he’s right.

The warm-up of the sun is quite remorseless, and it will continue. Unless we do something like [physicist Edward] Teller’s idea of putting up sunshades in the heliocentric orbit, we’ve had it. That’s it. There isn’t any way you could survive if the sun continues to warm up.

But nobody can predict the climate in two or three years’ time. It could be almost anything. For example, there was news of a very large volcano eruption emerging in the middle of the Pacific, from below. Well, of course, if that develops and magma starts coming up, that could change the whole picture. I’m hoping it won’t happen and probably it won’t.

When you allow yourself to be optimistic, how do you see the next few decades unfolding?
Well, I won’t be here for one, so I won’t see them. But I think we will have to curb our tendency to burn fossil fuels. And I think the big companies are beginning to realize themselves that you can’t make money that way. What replaces it, I hope, is nuclear, but probably they’ll mess about with renewables for awhile until they find their way to nuclear.

Why do you think it has been so difficult to get nuclear power going again?
Because there’s propaganda. I think the coal and oil business fight like mad to tell bad stories about nuclear.

Why is that? Because historically they haven’t seen renewables as the same scale of threat?
Yeah. I mean, when you look at the death rates in the nuclear industry, it’s almost ludicrously low. In this country, I think, it doesn’t exist at all. Nobody’s been hurt.

And even if you look at the worst disasters, they’re nothing compared with the damage that’s done by burning coal.
That’s right. It’s a fake business. And it’s amazing that people have been persuaded by it. I wish you journalists would write out what happened, because just after World War II, there was a lot of interest in using nuclear power and the politicians are all for it. In fact, one of them said, it’ll be so cheap, it will be impossible to meter it. Which is — would that it were true! But the people with loads of money in the oil industry made sure that never happened. And of course the greens played along with it. There’s bound to have been some corruption there — I’m sure that various green movements were paid some sums on the side to help with propaganda.

Just the word nuclear conjures such fears now. It’s almost as though, if it had just been called a different thing, the public would have been much more receptive to it. And if we don’t move into nuclear more aggressively, do you think there’s any hope that we avoid, say, two degrees of warming? Or is that basically inevitable?
I wish I knew. People have to ask the questions of the financial people — there’s the real driver. The reason we’re continuing to burn fossil fuels is that all the money’s invested in it, right? I find it almost hilarious.

It seems to me that the public is slowly waking up to this story. Especially over the past couple of years, there has been a kind of a change.
Well, I hope you’re right. I look at those affairs like the Paris conference more as parties. So, great, get together, you’ll have a great time. But the conferences are not serious.

And no country in the world is honoring the pledges it made during the Paris accords. But in your new book, you put a lot of faith in the possibility that superintelligence will arrive and, among other things, address this problem — and maybe save us from ourselves.
The reason I speculated along those lines was that Darwin has been an amazingly right during his lifetime. And it is a natural follow-on from Darwinism that we don’t just stay still as humans. There’s this extraordinary belief amongst most people, that future humans are going to be just like us. We’re beginning to see things like AI developments yielding the possibility of existing as the independent life forms, in which case you’ve got a new kingdom of life. That’s the way I see it.

I owe this to my colleague Lynn Margulies. She likes to divide life up into the kingdoms — vegetable, animal — it’s almost childish, but I think it’s absolutely solid. The AI stuff represents a new kingdom. They’re about 10,000 times faster than we are, so it would look on us much in the way that we look on plants, which are 10,000 times slower than us. It’s just another kingdom. But we’re all needed — we’re all part of the same system, or that’s how I think. Which is how you get Gaia.

But if you think about our relationship to plant life as having not exhibited what you could call a perfectly responsible relationship to the natural world, why should we expect better from a superintelligence?
Because they need us.

But we need plant life, right?
We do need plant life. We can’t go to war with it.

So why should we expect it to be more responsible toward humans and the natural world than humans were to the plant world? As you say, we’re much more impressive cognitively than other animals, and certainly more than plant life, yet in many ways we’ve managed the planet much less well than those kingdoms did.
It’s a good point.

So why do you think AI would be a better steward of the planet than humans?
I have a feeling that stewardship doesn’t come into it. It’s just what they will have to do to survive. It’s nice to think that stewardship is important, but I rather suspect we talk about it but we don’t practice it.

What’s a better model for how we should relate to the natural world?
Accept it.

And you think AI would take that view?
The reason they would limit warming is quite simple: the properties of water. That’s the deadly thing, which you’ve written about in your book. The ocean, at the moment, an awful lot of it is approaching 15 Celsius. Now that, what could be harmful about that? Everything. If you go anywhere in the world where the temperature is, the water is 15 and looked down, it’s beautifully clear and you can see down to 100 fathoms down, because there’s no life in that water. It’s a complete desert. And the reason for that is that the nutrient-rich lower waters can’t get to the top.

You’ve always written about the human role as being part of the greater Gaia ecosystem. But the theory of Gaia as I’ve seen it picked up by environmentalists often sets human activity against the rhythms of the natural world — as though we are outside the natural world, in fact its enemies.
That’s absolutely right. They’ve gotten it dead wrong.

Why do you think that is? Why do you think they’ve been so blind to the sort of basic formulation you put forward?
I think it’s a series of reasons. I think it’s high time that science was treated in much the same way as the church was treated in the Middle Ages. You need a dissolution of the universities, because it’s quite ridiculous — taking students and teaching them a single subject, with no idea what’s going on in the rest of science. But that’s what goes on. And you kind of cannot possibly understand a complex system like Gaia unless you’re looking at not just one, but the great bulk of the sciences, together. And that may seem a dreadful task, but it isn’t really because you don’t have to understand the whole of all of the sciences — there’s a sort of crossover. You can in your mind cross over between the various parts and understand much more than you might think was possible.

But let me tell you just the story of how it all started. I was invited to go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to NASA, only three years after NASA had formed. Soon after I was there, I was deposited for a bit in a meeting with a great group of biologists. Quite a few of them had Nobel Prizes in various things. They’d been picked up by NASA to design a life-detection experiment. I was asked what I thought of that, and it was appalling. Most of them went out into the Mojave Desert and said, “Mars is just like this, so if we can grow something here, we can do it there.” Which was just crazy. What little we knew about Mars even then suggested it was totally different. It was a daft assumption. They got very cross with me ’cause I kept on saying, “You know, you’re wasting your time on that.” And I got called to see one of the head what you might call rocket scientists. He said, “Why are you upsetting all these biologists? You go on like this and he’ll be out of a job.” But then he added, “Well, what would you do to detect lives?” And I’d just read that little book by Schrödinger called What Is Life? I said, “If you read that, that offers a good standard.” “Oh my God,” they said, “give me a practical example that we can put on a rocket.”

I said, “I’ll have to think about it, you can’t ask me a question like that across the table.” They said, “Well, you’ve got till Friday.” I was pretty worried! Thursday night I could see my job going down the tubes. But then suddenly it came to me. God, dead easy. All I have to do is measure the composition of Mars’s atmosphere. If it’s made of gases that react with each other chemically and produce heat or products or whatnot, then that fulfills the definition of life, according to Schrödinger — entropy. And you could do the same thing for the surface: If the surface reacts with the atmosphere or the ocean and you get heat produced, then the planet’s alive, because that can never happen by chance. And he said, “Ah, now you’re talking.” And that became Viking.

And then you just applied the same perspective to Earth. It may be that I’m too worried about climate change, but I have a hard time adopting the same point of view.
I think we can extend the lifespan of the current system using nuclear power. But we are near the edge, in terms of keeping the thing going. Any further interference is likely to be disastrous.

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‘Any Further Interference Is Likely to Be Disastrous’